‘Vida’ Flips the Script on Gentrification

Posted May 3, 2018 8:20 p.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES — Gentrification may have become one of this country’s most nettlesome civic issues, but you’d hardly know it judging from what’s been on TV.

In sitcoms and dramas set from Brooklyn to East L.A., the topic is played largely for laughs (think Abbi’s dope-fueled romp through her neighborhood’s new Whole Foods on “Broad City”), and typically takes a supporting role in a larger narrative (HBO’s “Insecure,” Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It”). The gentrifier himself — and yes, he’s most often a guy — is instantly recognizable, complete with a flannel shirt, fixie bike and gourmet coffee cup.

In “Vida,” a Starz series debuting May 6 that revolves around two Mexican-American sisters, Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera), the subject is no longer just comic fodder, but a central part of the six-episode, 30-minute drama. And the show’s gentrifiers aren’t the usual clueless white hipsters. In “Vida,” they’re Mexican-American, and the core of the cast.

In the first episode, a slick real estate developer in Boyle Heights tries to persuade Emma, a successful management consultant in Chicago, to sell a building owned by her recently deceased mother. In place of mom’s dive bar and low-rent apartments, the developer sees pricey condos. Who cares if her tenants, most of them undocumented, end up on the street? Not the developer, who, like Emma, is Mexican-American, and grew up in the neighborhood. “Look at us, and look at them,” he tells Emma. “We took off the nopal from our foreheads.”

“Nopal en la frente [literally, cactus on your forehead] is the most racist thing you can say,” said Tanya Saracho, the show’s creator and showrunner. “He’s saying those people are indigenous, and we’re closer to white.”

Closer to white, but not. “They’re gente-fiers,” Saracho said, using a term to describe upwardly mobile Latinos who are transforming their new communities. “They go back to their neighborhoods, or maybe they’re not even from the neighborhoods, but they happen to be Latinx. It’s still gentrification, but it’s even more egregious, maybe, because it’s us.”

On a recent morning, Saracho was at her office in Hollywood here, apologizing if she wasn’t “super up” (she was, very much so), because she had taken melatonin the night before to help her sleep. Her office and nearby writing room are decorated with framed images of Frida Kahlo and Selena, and posters in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program by local artist/activist Julio Salgado. There’s a throw pillow on the couch that says “Chingona,” and lit candles and potted succulents everywhere. “I have an all Latinx writers room,” she said, using a gender-neutral word for Latino and Latina. “I have one male writer, and the rest are female identified.”

Over coffee and mini-conchas brought from a nearby Mexican bakery, Saracho described her experiences growing up in nine different port towns by the time she was nine (“my dad worked for Mexican customs”), her family’s move to Texas when she was 12 (“I thought I spoke English, but then found out I didn’t”), her playwriting career in Chicago (where she founded the theater group Teatro Luna), and her eventual relocation to Los Angeles in 2012 to work on series like “Looking” and “How to Get Away with Murder.”

“Vida” grew out of an assignment in early 2016, when she was tasked by Starz to develop a series about “chipsters” — a term for Chicano hipsters which can either be endearing or biting, depending on who’s saying it — and the topic of gentefication (see previous note on “chipsters”).

There was a lot to consider, Saracho said. Do Mexican Americans who return to their old neighborhoods still have a right to dictate what goes on there? Does wanting less crime and better roads automatically make you a chipster? Can one be simultaneously Latinx and vegan?

“It’s complicated,” she said. “And I have to see all the sides.”

The topic of gentrification has popped up on several recent shows, including series set in Inglewood (HBO’s “Insecure”), North Oakland (the web series “The North Pole”), Boyle Heights (the web series “Gente-fied,” which is being adapted into a series for Netflix) and Brooklyn (the Tracy Morgan comedy on TBS, “The Last O.G.,” and the web series “aka Wyatt Cenac” and “Brooklynification”).

As in “Vida,” many of the gentrifiers in this new wave of shows are people of color, a change from the recent TV past in shows like “Portlandia” and “Girls.” In “Gente-fied,” the chef bringing artisanal tacos to Boyle Heights is a Latino local and one of the ensemble comedy’s central figures. In “The North Pole,” the guy in plaid who just took a job with GreenGos, an eco-friendly startup, is African-American, and one of the show’s trio of stars.

And even when the gentrifiers are white, show creators have managed to tweak the model. When Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce first envisioned the character of Schneider on their reboot of “One Day at a Time,” they saw a quinoa-eating, mansplaining guy in flannel and thermals. “Our first conception of him was the handsome ugly American,” Royce said. As the show progressed, however, he has become a far more sympathetic and fleshed-out character.

“The hipster in TV narratives tend to be white, even though hipsters obviously come in all ethnicities,” said Daniel Makagon, a communication studies professor at DePaul who has written extensively about gentrification and the media. “I don’t think we’ve seen many shows where the gentrifiers are minorities, so it’ll be interesting to see if that starts to become more of a narrative.”

One major issue in “Vida” is the impact that gentrification — or, in this case, gentefication — has on the locals. Chelsea Rendon plays Marisol, a fearless anti-gentrification vlogger and community activist who calls out injustice, hypocrisy or just plain bouginess wherever she sees it. For the role, Rendon drew from her own experiences growing up in East LA.

“I was like, how would I react if El Mercadito was gone and they put up a Walmart?,” she said. “Or if Tamales Liliana’s wasn’t there anymore, and they put up a Starbucks. If those places were gone, it would be heartbreaking.”

As the overassimilated, non-Spanish-speaking Lyn, Barrera plays one of Marisol’s chief foils, even though the actress is just about as far from the character she plays as one can get. Barrera speaks — and sings — fluent Spanish, having acted in films, plays and telenovelas in her native Mexico. And she wasn’t nearly as familiar with Lyn’s hometown Boyle Heights, which is why she went on several Eastside excursions once she got cast. “I could feel the warmth of the people, how welcoming they were,” she said. “It felt like I was walking around Mexico City.”

Indeed, in many ways, Boyle Heights has become a character in the series, and Saracho has spoken with residents and community groups in the effort to get things right. She’s also tackled several issues besides gentefication that haven’t historically gotten a lot of play on series TV, including homophobia in the Mexican-American community and how Latinos can’t tell Asians apart (the signage for mom’s dive bar, “La Chinita,” has a geisha on it).

Even so, Saracho said, the series isn’t a polemic. There are sisterly squabbles and hilarious trash talk, much of it in Spanish, as well as moments of extreme tenderness and jerks being jerks. “The show is about gentefication, but it shouldn’t hit you over the head,” she said. “In the end, it’s about the girls.”